A trillion tributes have flooded in over the last week for the man they called ‘The Greatest’, who died aged 74 on June 3rd 2016 – Muhammad Ali. He was the self-proclaimed greatest, but if anyone could back up that boast it was Ali. Rather than write yet another tribute to the world’s most revered boxer, I would like to reflect on something that must affect all fanatics of any sport, the passing frustration of having been born too late to bear witness to sporting history – to be alive and watch it live is to feel part of an event’s history. Boxing is in my blood, it runs through my DNA, many of my family were passionate about the sport. I am also addicted to the noble art.
Anyone who knows me well dares not to mention the result of a recent boxing match in case I’ve recorded it to watch later; in an ideal world I would watch all fights live but different time zones and work commitments make this difficult. Watching a recording with no knowledge of the result or even the quality of a bout is the next best thing. I have to watch a contest with fresh eyes; I need to feel part of the excitement, a witness to the next installment of the grand pugilistic saga which never ends. A fight is an episode in the story of a boxer’s epic journey. The boxing commentator Larry Merchant once described boxing as the “theatre of the unexpected”. The blood, sweat and tears are however very real.
I often think it’s a shame that my father died before being able to watch the incredible contest between Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera in 2000, a battle between two Mexicans from very different socio-economic backgrounds, an intense rivalry in which pride and sheer hatred were manifested in a brutal fight for the ages. I’m sure there are thousands of young hardcore English football fans who would have loved to have seen England win the World Cup in 1966, to have witnessed a euphoria that can barely be imagined. I never got round to inventing the time machine but If I could travel back in time to watch one fight live it would be the astonishing ‘Rumble in the Jungle’, the champ George Foreman vs Muhammad Ali.
No one gave a very young Ali a hope in hell of beating the feared Sonny Liston in the 1960s – Ali proved them all wrong, outclassing Liston and forcing him to retire on his stool. However Liston, with his monstrous reputation as a leg breaker for the mob, had been largely inactive and had seen better days. In 1974 George Foreman was in his prime, a brooding menace who had just splattered the tough Smoking Joe Frazier, dropping him six times before stopping him in the second round. “Uncommonly strong” was how Frazier would later describe the brutish powerhouse they called ‘Big George’. Convicted murderer and numbers racketeer Don King, in one of his first ventures into boxing promotion offered both Ali and Foreman 5 million dollars each but didn’t have the capital to pay them. He organised a consortium and struck a deal with Zaire (now the DR Congo) dictator Mobutu Sese Seko for the country to sponsor the event, as he was eager to bring international attention to Zaire. King was heavily involved with the music industry and a vibrant three-day festival was organised a month before the fight to add more hype; legends such as BB King and James Brown performed at the famed event.
Ali stayed in Zaire much longer than anticipated as Foreman had suffered a cut eye in training which led to a month’s postponement. The fight date changed from September 25th to October 30th. Ali became a hero to the people of Zaire, and the locals’ chant of ‘Ali Boomaye’ followed his every step. On fight night Ali had the 60,000 in attendance in the palm of his gloved hand, the infectious chant ringing around the stadium – the chant which translated as “Ali – kill him”. The muscular Foreman’s sullen, brooding personality had hardly endeared him to the people of Zaire. To further disintegrate any chance he had of making friends he unwittingly walked around with his pet dog Dago – a German Shepherd, the type of dog used by the Belgians when they controlled Zaire, an animal symbolic of their oppression.
On fight night most boxing experts believed things would turn out very badly for the 32-year old former champ. In the first round Ali surprised everyone by going toe to toe with Foreman in the centre of the ring, right hands slashing through Foreman’s guard. Ali was audacious enough to not bother setting the right shots up with a left jab! From the 2nd round onwards Ali employed a tactic he had not used so efficiently before, the now famous Rope-a-Dope. Ali leant with his back to the ropes as Foreman’s tree trunk arms threw heavy flurry after flurry. Over the next six rounds the knock-out artist had thrown hundreds of punches; Ali deflected most of them with his arms and shoulders whilst constantly taunting the increasingly tiring champ. In the 7th round Ali mocked Foreman’s power. George Foreman recalled the mid-fight taunting decades later: “I thought he was just another knockout victim, until around the seventh round, I hit him hard to the jaw and he held me and whispered in my ear ‘is that all you got George?’. I realised that is ain’t what I thought it was. ” At the end of the 8th round Ali bounced off the ropes to throw a beautifully timed five punch combination which sent an exhausted Foreman to the floor. The champ just beat the count but not the intervention of the referee and to the roars of the locals, history had been made and Ali reminded one and all that he was … ‘The Greatest’.
Due to not having invented the time machine I have missed the irreplicable sensation of having witnessed live one of the greatest performances in the history of boxing – the one fight I would have absolutely loved to have watched fresh. Then again I never had the pleasure of watching a single Ali fight live. But at least, unlike the fights my father missed that occurred after his death, I can always watch the recordings!
There was one fight that I did see live on television, in its surreal way as epic as the Rumble in the Jungle. It involved an old near-46-year old former champ who many thought way past his prime; it was billed as a ‘Fight for the Ages’. In 1994, over twenty years after the Rumble in the Jungle, ‘Big George’ shuffled into the ring with his trainer, Angelo Dundee, Ali’s former aide. Foreman was different from the young tough guy of the 1970s; he was wiser and more jovial in demeanour. He was attempting the impossible dream – to become the oldest man ever to win the heavyweight championship of the world, to regain the belt he had won blasting out Smoking Joe over two decades earlier. Unfortunately for the old war horse he was up against the talented if erratic world champ, 26-year old Michael Moorer, who out-boxed the old pro for nine rounds. That was until Foreman unloaded a classic one two combination, the force of the right splitting Moorer’s gum shield and sending him into oblivion. Foreman was once again the heavyweight champion of the world; he was even wearing the same trunks he had worn during the Rumble in the Jungle. The elation on Foreman’s face spoke volumes – the ghosts of Zaire had been exorcised, and his achievement only makes Ali’s all the more remarkable.
Now – I must crack on with that time machine! … I wonder what it was like to witness Joe Louis vs Max Schmeling II …